The particular way a surgeon ties a suture knot or angles a drill into bone is critical. If you’re a dog, how fast you zoom through an agility tunnel or weave between poles is equally as critical. It’s all about perspective.
The only difference is that when a dog knocks a pole over or chickens out on the see-saw, his human doesn’t reprimand him. They start again—when Fido climbs that A-frame with the finesse of a mountain goat, he gets a “Yes!” or a “Good boy!” and a treat.
Good ol’ B.F. Skinner used the same technique when he designed the “Skinner Box.” Mouse goes in, mouse successfully presses a lever, box dispenses treat for mouse. And viola! Mouse has learned a trick!
Orthopedic surgeon and animal-lover Martin Levy happens to have over 20 years of agility dog training under his belt, and the lightbulb over his head recently flickered on. The doc had a brilliant idea when he realized the tasks his surgical residents need to learn are not much different than the dogs’ physical obstacles.
Levy tells Scientific American, “Over time, I started to realize that we had better tools for training our dogs than our residents.” Mastering a skill is all very similar from an outsider’s perspective; jumping a hoop or stitching up a patient is the same in the eyes of a trainer.
That’s why, when the American Board of Orthopedic Surgeons challenged Levy to help his residents master skills more quickly, he called animal trainer Karen Pryor. Scientific American explains how the pair implemented positive reinforcement techniques:
[Levy] broke down basic procedures, like drilling into bone, into simple steps: how to grip a drill, how to position it at the correct angle over a practice PVC pipe, and how to stabilize the drill tip. When a young doctor performed a movement correctly, the instructor noted the achievement with an event marker—a click, the flick of a flashlight, or simply the word “good” spoken in a neutral tone.
Students are easy to please, as are most canines. Give them a “Good job!” and they’re putty in your hands. Traditionally, teaching methods for residency surgeons involve more reprimanding for unwanted behavior than rewarding for desired ones.
Since Levy discovered that while both techniques work, his dog-training method produces a higher level of precision and proficiency, more and more instructors at Montefiore Medical Center are adopting it. He says:
When we talk to the attending surgeons, they can say anecdotally that residents who learned with the new methods seem better prepared.
These students aren’t trained with many clickers, but this type of modified clicker training is used across species and with other humans, such as gymnasts and golfers.
How crazy is that? It’s only a matter of time before doctors start dispensing treats for their brilliant protégés.